The West Kootenay may be half a world away from Cambodia, but for Selkirk College Instructor Sarah Youngblutt the troubled Asian nation never escapes her thoughts.
For most of the year, Youngblutt can be found at Selkirk College’s Trail Campus helping inspire learners seeking a second chance through the Academic Upgrading Program. Outside the Selkirk College classrooms, the trained anthropologist is focused on working towards her PhD in Southeast Asian Studies.
“When you know a lot about something, you have a responsibility,” says Youngblutt, who has been teaching at Selkirk College since January 2016. “I’m an expert in Cambodia and I have a commitment to Cambodia in the sense of educational capacity building. I want to see Cambodians have the opportunity to lead the archeology in their country themselves. There are 30 different countries involved in archeology there and I think it’s really important that they are the ones that have the autonomy, make the decisions and have the jobs.”
Most people are familiar with the beauty of Angkor Wat, the Cambodian temple complex that is the largest religious monument on the planet. Since the 1990s, Angkor Wat has become a major tourist destination with more than two million visits by foreign visitors each year. As a UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) World Heritage Site, it’s also one of the most active archeological sites in the world.
Youngblutt fell in love with Cambodia when she 19 and traveling solo through a dozen countries with only her backpack. Since 2001, the nation has become the focus of her academic work and she has visited for extended periods on seven occasions. The work Youngblutt is focused on now is not some romantic archeological adventure exploring ancient cultures, it’s more about finding justice for a nation with a horrific past that continues to struggle.
“Cambodia has endured sustained structural violence and today has become very much a playground for NGOs [non-governmental organizations] and a place where academics create identities for themselves off of the backs of suffering folks,” Youngblutt says.
Cambodia gained independence from France in 1953, but by the end of the 1960s the nation became embroiled in the Vietnam War. Then in 1970 a coup resulted in the Khmer Rouge taking power in the country with devastating results. Led by Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge regime carried out a genocide between 1975 and 1979 where it is estimated that as many as three million people died. Today, Cambodia continues to face widespread poverty, high rates of human trafficking, deep political corruption and massive environmental destruction.
The wonders of Angkor Wat and other important historical sites in Cambodia is seen by most, especially the country’s strongman Hun Sen, as a glimmer of hope for the nation’s future. There is promise of economic revenue derived from tourism and jobs for the people. Despite the potential, Youngblutt doesn’t see Cambodia heading in a direction that offers the kind of desirable future the people need.
In 2009, Youngblutt started a project with four University of British Columbia professors that aims to capacity build the archeology sector in Cambodia. This past summer she spent five weeks of work in Asia sponsored by the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation & Peace where she did volunteer teaching at the Royal University of Fine Arts and continued research into her PhD thesis: “A study of effectiveness of international agencies in the protection, conservation and presentation of Cambodian heritage places.”
“I would like to see a real transfer of power in archeology and history,” says Youngblutt, who will present some of her work later this month at Toronto’s York University. “Archeology and history are vanishing fields, quickly being replaced by training institutes for business, policy, manufacturing and trades. It’s a changing world, so I guess that I’m a bit of dreamer. I believe having a stronger sense of identity would allow Cambodians to create a voice which would give them more courage, help them be more brave and be more certain. It’s hard to have a strong footing when you don’t where you are from.”
Back in the classrooms of the Selkirk College Trail Campus, Youngblutt is thrilled to have the opportunity to teach daily in the Academic Upgrading Program where she brings a similar approach to her work in a far off land.
“I love teaching. This job is good for my heart and my skills work really well with the students,” says Youngblutt, who teaches courses in English and math. “Students need to know when they walk through the door that where they are right now in their life is enough, everything they have done to this point is enough. This is additional and I am here to teach them something, but we are all equal.”
After living in several different Canadian cities, Youngblutt and her husband moved with their three young children to the West Kootenay in 2015 so she could write her thesis in a mountain environment. With her feet now firmly planted in two places she loves, Youngblutt is emboldened to carry out her work and continue to make change.
“It’s important to bring the worlds together,” she says. “I believe that access to education is a human right and I’m really delighted that Adult Basic Education has once again become free in British Columbia. Everyone should have equal opportunity and equal access.”
Find out more about Selkirk College Academic Upgrading at: selkirk.ca/upgrading.